Critic’s Notebook: James Corden, CBS’s Late-Night Teddy Bear

Sonja Flemming/CBS

The difference between CBS’s adorable new Late Late Show host and his predecessor couldn’t be more pronounced—and we’re not just talking accents. Under the stewardship of Craig Ferguson, the show developed into a stimulating, digressive and proudly wacky showcase for the spiky Scot’s restless and hilariously provocative personality. With a berserk talking robot and pantomime horse keeping him company, Ferguson’s Late Late Show was an acquired taste that lingered in one’s blurry after-hours memory like a strange and wonderful dream.

With baby-faced Brit James Corden at the helm, the new Late Late Show is at once more accessible and, though enjoyable, more ordinary and generic, at least during his truncated first week on the job. (The show takes a break Thursday and Friday for the network’s NCAA coverage.) There’s no doubting Tony-winner Corden’s talent as a comedian, and his jovially genuine sweetness makes him just about the cuddliest Teddy Ruxpin ever to enter the late-night fray. If it’s edge and innovation you’re seeking, look elsewhere. But if you’re settling for mere entertainment value, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Corden made his simple goal quite clear in his opening-night intro: “We’re going to do everything we can to put a smile on your face before—or let’s be honest, more likely whilst—you fall asleep at night.” (His charming use of the word “whilst” will never get old.)

Unfailingly upbeat, even when riffing on California’s alarming water shortage on night two, Corden is as playful as Jimmy Fallon, especially when camping it up alongside his starry guests: performing quick-change comic bits with Tom Hanks in a rapid-fire run-through of Hanks’s film career; trashing a soap-opera set with Patricia Arquette and Chris Pine in a parody of The Young and the Restless (which is filmed on a neighboring stage); taking advice from the likes of Allison Janney, Meryl Streep and Jay Leno in a terrific first-night stunt. But when he attempted a Fallon-esque game-show parody with Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart later in the week, it felt lame and forced. And his forays outside the studio, including a gag with a pizza-delivery guy, can carry the stale whiff of more fearless Conan or Kimmel routines.

Instead of aping his peers, Corden needs to develop his own style, his own voice, and that will take time. (Much more promising was a filmed segment of “carpool karoake” silliness in which he went trill for trill with Mariah Carey in his passenger seat.)

The one significant tweak The Late Late Show brings to the traditional talk format is putting all of the celebrity guests—typically two per night—together on the couch at once, as Cordon scoots his chair from behind his desk to engage them directly in scattershot-at-best conversation. When there’s a natural rapport between the guests, as with co-stars Ferrell and Hart, the results can be fun. But this approach more frequently leads to awkward moments when one star is left out of the back-and-forth for too long. (Especially noticeable when a big get like Tom Hanks plays second fiddle to Mila Kunis pitching her jewelry line.)

With Reggie Watts providing robust musical and comedic backup to Corden’s infectiously giggly ring-leading, the new Late Late Show should find its footing with minimal growing pains. Whether it, or the host, grows into something more significant remains to be seen.

The Late Late Show With James Corden, Weeknights at 12:37/11:37c, CBS